2017 Fiction Issue - 'A Game with Death'
The black-hooded figure followed Ellen down the busy sidewalk as she talked on her phone. “Yes, Mom,” Ellen said, “I’m leaving work now, can’t talk. Yes, I’ll be careful.” She rolled her eyes at no one and tilted her head. “Yes. Yes. Okay now, bye bye, Mom.”
As she turned to place her phone in her purse, she started to step into the busy crosswalk, but felt something grab her arm. At the same time, the city around her seemed to freeze in place. The sound of pedestrians and taxis was snatched from her ears.
She turned her head to see an elderly man’s hand clutching her elbow. The man was strong but was not hurting her. He merely held her in place. She looked up to find a face, to ask why he would grab her, but found only a black hood hiding unseen depths. The hood was part of a black cloak that completely covered the tall man, from wrists down to the sidewalk. The other hand gripped a shiny black stick or handle about five feet tall.
Ellen straightened her glasses with her free hand. “Local comic book convention this weekend?” she asked, her natural sarcasm coming easily.
“Ellen Gurney McKinley?” came out of the hood, as if a tombstone spoke to her.
She tried to say no. She fought to form the word “no” on her lips. “Yes,” she said.
“I have come for you,” the hood said.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Thanatos. I am here to fulfill my duty.”
“The Greek manifestation of Death? Are you kidding me? A cloak and a stick don’t make you interesting, let alone Death.”
The hood did not even quiver, but the voice got lower and louder. “Is this more to your understanding?” The black stick went “shnuktik” and sprouted a three-foot-long curved silver blade.
Ellen was not impressed. “Yea, look, I’m not …” She choked and sputtered as the hand released her and pulled back the hood enough to reveal a skull’s face. It was not plastic or metal or anything like that: it moved as if alive. The jaw closed and opened, and the eyes shone with a blood-red light that shifted from one of her eyes to the other, staring at her, probing her.
“Now see me, mortal, and tremble!” The free hand of Thanatos pointed behind Ellen. “See my power, and know it is I.”
She turned and looked behind her. She saw, frozen in place, cars and buses and people walking. No sound, no movement. Near her, people hung in mid-leap to avoid an oncoming bus. The driver was clutching the wheel and appeared to be trying to stand on the brakes.
“You,” she stammered, “you stopped me dying?”
“Oh.” Ellen frowned. “This is how I die? Hit by a bus? How lame.”
“It is your time.”
“You mean it was pre-ordained? I told you it wasn’t fair.”
“Fair has nothing to do with it. It is your time.”
“If it’s not pre-ordained, how are you here to catch me when I die?”
“When your time comes, I am there to collect you.”
“So, you can see the future?”
“Look, madam, I am just doing my job.” Ellen noticed a distinct lack of boom and rumble in the voice, as if the DJ had turned off the mixer. “I do not know how it all works, either. I just come get you, and send you on to the next place.”
Ellen was taken aback by that. It did not last. “But I’m young! I’ve got so much left to do!”
“It is …” he cleared his throat, and the rumble came back, “your time.”
“So there’s nothing you can do about this? I’m dead.”
“You are dead.”
“Wait. You skipped part of my question. Besides, why are we even discussing anything unless …”
The hood seemed to sink a half of an inch. The hand on the scythe tightened ever so slightly.
“Don’t you have to give me a test or challenge, if I ask?”
Thanatos reached up and slapped the side of his head. He murmured something.
“What? Excuse me?” she asked.
The hooded voice came out tired and petulant even through the deep boom. “Yes.”
Ellen almost cackled with delight, but restrained herself, trying to reach for rusty skills in demurring.
Thanatos turned his red eyes upon her. “Think not you can hide your inner thoughts from Death. State your case or prepare to move on.”
“I invoke challenge,” she said, hoping that was the correct form.
Illustration by Jonathan Splitlog
He reached up and pulled his head back into the hood. The motion sent a shudder of fear through Ellen’s body.
“You stand before Death, and cast Challenge into his eternal face.” Yes, she had said it correctly enough. “Now hear, mortal, how your fate unravels.”
Ellen noticed they now stood on a flat, infinite plane, ankle-deep in fog. Even Hollywood can get something right, she thought.
“So,” she said, “how does this work?”
“Patience. I shall explain the Challenge to you, and you shall agree to the terms, or come with me to the next place.”
“I can retract the challenge?”
The hood tilted slightly. “Would that not be fair?”
Touché, she thought. “So if I win, I don’t die, right?”
“It is not so simple. Again, patience.”
Ellen raised her eyebrows and made a face straining to look patient. She almost pulled it off.
Again with the weird throat-clearing. “As you have invoked Challenge against Death, know here how you stand against Fate.”
How does he get them to sound like capital letters?
“If you renege Challenge, it shall be as it was before. You die and pass on. If you accept Challenge, I will present you with a Task. If you succeed, mortal, you shall not die this day, nor the next time.”
“Wait, you mean …”
Thanatos actually put his free hand on his hip. The hood leaned forward and down. His body language was clear. Would you let me finish?!
“Ahem. If you succeed, yes, you win the right to foil Death yet again in the future.” Ellen had to clench not to interrupt again with a delighted squeal. “However! If you lose Challenge, you become as Death, and collect the dead until such day as you are released. I have spoken. Now choose!”
“Um, I’m sorry. Can I clarify?” The hood moved not at all. “Okay, then: if I win, I get to skip death twice, but if I lose, I take over the job from you?”
“How long have you been wearing those robes?”
“Two centuries and seven and thirty years.”
“So, the challenge is difficult?”
“Some few would say so, but most would not know, as they cower before Death and flee the Challenge.”
“You …” Ellen stammered, “you lost the Challenge?”
“In my mortal arrogance, I cast my gauntlet into the ring. Fearing death, I am punished with this immortality of futility.” The hood shook back and forth once, casting off a fly perhaps. “That is past and gone. You know the rules of Challenge, now decide!”
“But, wait, I don’t know what the task is. And, now that I think about it, who decides which of us wins?”
Now it was Ellen’s turn to put hands on hips. “Wait a second. You decide? You’re not impartial; you’re involved. That’s not fair at all.”
“You use that word a lot, despite its irrelevancy.”
“It’s not irrelevant. You could cheat.”
“How do I know that?”
“You do not.”
“So, why would anyone go through with this, knowing you are both a competitor and the judge?”
“I am bound by the Universe just as you are. I cannot cheat. And …” He seemed to shrink or slouch ever so slightly.
“You want to die? Would you cheat to get out of being Thanatos?”
“I said before, I cannot cheat. I am bound. It would be dishonest to deny my feelings on this matter, but again they are irrelevant.”
“You use that word a lot.”
Ellen smiled despite herself, despite the bizarre circumstance. Part of her thought this would make a great episode of television. Or maybe not. “I accept the terms of Challenge.” She felt the capital letter work that time. “Present me with the Task.”
“You are bold, mortal. I give you that. Here is your Task: prove to Thanatos that the world is unfair. Do this, and survive twice that which should destroy your physical form.”
Ellen lost her composure again. “What? Are you kidding me?”
“This is the Task. Do you concede already?”
“You’re mocking me, right? This task is a load of crap.”
“Not at all. It is the Task ordained for you, being part of who you are, and part of your struggle against the Universe and its fortunes.”
“So, you’re not mocking me. The universe is mocking me.”
“Proceed or concede.”
“Well, this is easy. The world or universe or whatever is unfair because this is the task you set before me, to prove it is unfair.”
“No? What does that means?”
“I am unconvinced. You cannot blame an abstract invention of mankind for your misfortunes. The bus that strikes you does so not out of malice or intent. It is just there, when you should not be. No one is bending the rules to kill you, just as no one bends them to save you.”
Ellen rolled her eyes, and then leaned in toward the hooded figure. “So, you’re saying that the world is completely fair, because no one means to kill small children or give nice people cancer? DNA and mutation take all the credit for giving loving parents a child with Down syndrome, and that’s fair because it’s random?”
“Indeed. It is not nice. It is not un-nice. It is as things are, without intent or design.”
“Is this part of that ‘Nature is not evil’ garbage?”
“An excellent example. The lion is not evil, nor is it unfair. It is hungry. The gazelle might, if it had the human capacity for self-centered delusion or solipsism, believe as it was dying that the lion was evil, that it had been plucked from the herd unfairly. The obvious counterpoint is the lack of concern for the grass that is eaten by that same herd of gazelle. Do the individual blades of vegetation also warrant your indignation?”
Ellen was speechless. It happened sometimes. She knew all of this, but it had not been thrown into her face quite so clearly before. She mouthed up and down, hunting for words that would save her from an eternity of regretting her arrogance, to challenge Thanatos, to think she could defeat Death in his own demesne.
“Well?” The dark figure was standing quite straight and tall again.
“Some people …” She faltered. How did she know that being rich and pretty was unfair? How did she know that being born poor and blind was unfair? It was her choice to believe that someone was doing these things to her and to others. Maybe she was completely and utterly fooling herself.
“Fine, I concede the task. I thought I could prove to you that things are unfair, and it seems I was wrong.”
“Indeed.” Thanatos lifted his arms, holding aloft his scythe of office, and grasped at the open air. Ellen felt a rush of wind around her, as the robes flowed onto her, covering her, devouring her. She felt the staff thrust into her hand, and felt the weight of thousands of years of mortality upon her arms and back and neck. She was not just defeated, she was crushed.
She looked out from the hood to see a middle-age man, white, western European perhaps. His hair was long but tied up in a neat ponytail. His beard and mustache looked perfect, but his teeth were a mess. He wore a bright scarlet coat covered in brass, with leather straps holding several pouches. Large black boots came up to his knees over white pants. A British soldier? He was a Redcoat?
“So,” she said with a sad laugh, “I am stuck wearing these work shoes for all eternity?”
“Indeed.” His voice came out warm and kind. She now saw him as strong and charismatic. Too bad about the teeth. “You shall wear that robe until another fails your challenge. Do not hope too much. It is a waste of time and energy.”
“So, now, what happens to you?”
“I have no knowledge of my next place. This is my first time in this situation.” He smiled sardonically.
“Will you be rewarded for your service?”
“I don’t think so. I was immortal for a limited time, but now perhaps I can rest.”
“Well, that does not sound …” she paused.
“It is not fair. It is not unfair.”
Ellen felt a flush rise up her neck into her face. She pulled the hood back and down, a smile on her face. “No, it is not fair. But it is unfair.”
“How is that?” The soldier looked concerned at her words.
“Everyone dies, right?”
She tried out the booming voice of Thanatos. “No, no they do not.” Obviously it worked.
“I’m not …”
“I did not die. I am now immortal. You said that yourself at least twice. That seems unfair to me. Not everyone gets the same chance to become immortal. Why am I so lucky? I am not. I am here because you set me a Task that matched me specifically. If it was fair, then I would get the exact same Task as anyone else. Even if it was unintentional, you made it personal. That is unfair. A playing field,” she gestured around to the foggy plane, “should be as level as what we are now standing on.”
The soldier looked at her, his mouth slightly open, his hand reaching out for something he could not find. He looked around in the fog at his feet for an answer. Finally, he straightened up and looked her full in the face. He obviously had been a proud and brave man in life. “Indeed.”
The scythe was yanked out of Ellen’s hand, and the robes slid off of her less gently than they had arrived. She grabbed at her glasses, fearing they would come off and be lost in the fog. When she recovered her wits she saw Thanatos standing in front of her, restored to all his creepy glory.
“I’m sorry,” she said with a sad smile. Her victory had come at a price.
I do not blame you, mortal. You cannot hold a grudge in this job. It was not you that placed me here.
“Wait, did I hear you in my head?”
Indeed. You have been as Death, Collector of Souls, and you cannot now un-know what you know.
“So, I’m going back?”
I keep my promises, for good or ill. It is only … fair.
She could not avoid smiling at that. “Okay, good to know. Thank you. And I hope you get some peace soon.”
No thanks are needed. I only do what is required. There is one problem, however, and I regret it, but you must know.
“Oh, come on …”
You lost the Challenge, and you won the Challenge. You are saved from this death, but the rewards of the Task were negated when you lost for a time.
“So, no ‘get out of death free’ card for me?”
“You know what I’m going to say, right?”
It is not unfair. It is what it is, as you moved outside of the normal motions of the Universe, if only for a millisecond. Even I could not have predicted the outcome.
Did you think this discussion took place as the Earth moved underneath us?
“Oh, good point.” Ellen sighed, and looked around as if searching for the elevator. “Now what?”
“I still feel gipped. I’m not going to give you five stars on my review.”
I feel the loss deeply.
She moved as if to lob a witty comment over the net, but found herself choking on the smoke of a city bus. She felt held in midair, stuck between two moments. Someone was still holding her arm in a tight but not violent grasp. She turned to say goodbye to Thanatos, and found herself staring into the blue eyes of a man about her age.
“You okay?” he asked with a faint New England accent.
Ellen blinked three times and said, “Uh … yea. I’m fine, thanks.”
“You shouldn’t walk out into traffic without looking, you know.”
His face was so familiar. “I know. I guess I just flaked.”
“Well, that bus was trying to snatch you up. Sorry for manhandling you.”
Where did she know him from? “No, not at all. If not for you, that bus would have flattened me.”
“Well, that would have been completely unfair. You seem a nice person to me.” He smiled broadly, with well-formed teeth and a strong face. “My name is James.”
“Ellen. Thank you for, I guess, saving my life. I should at least buy you a cup of coffee.”
He considered and smiled again. “I’m not sure I did anything quite as melodramatic as that, but a drink would be wonderful.”
“I have an odd question. You’re English, right?”
He looked confused. “My family was. How did you figure that out?”
“Was one of your ancestors in the British army by any chance?”
Photo by Joeff Davis
Darin M. Bush is a science-fiction and fantasy author, and speaker at local fandom conventions. He can be found at facebook.com/darinmbush.